In February when COVID-19 began spreading all over the world, our co-founder, Ayesha Curry, asked the Eat. Learn. Play. team what we were prepared to do for Oakland kids if COVID-19 were to become a big thing. Unknowingly at the time, it would, and we quickly shifted our strategy to focus on one question: How is Eat. Learn. Play. going to help children and families in Oakland affected by the pandemic?
In early March, when schools announced they were closing, we realized hunger was going to be a huge issue for many Oakland students who received 2-3 of their daily meals from school. Also, we did not realize how widespread hunger and food insecurity would become in our community where 1 in 4 kids are affected by hunger and across the country where over 54 million people are food insecure–a number that is only growing. The magnitude of the crisis ahead of us was unfathomable. We were unsure how we would tackle this crisis alone, but we knew we had to do something.
Then, one day Curry received a phone call from world-renowned celebrity chef and friend, Chef José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, a global non-profit organization using food to empower local communities and rebuild local economies by establishing resilient food systems through times of crises and natural disasters. He asked if Eat. Learn. Play. would partner with World Central Kitchen to help feed Oakland residents using a new and unique model.
Both being successful restaurateurs, Curry and Andrés knew that with the rising unemployment due to the pandemic, restaurants would also be impacted in a huge way. Surely enough, by the end of March, many restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery, lost a significant portion of their revenue, or had already shut down completely, while hundreds of restaurant workers had been laid off or furloughed. The thought of using restaurants as a way to help feed the community seemed like a winning combination–re-open restaurants, re-hire kitchen staff, and serve high quality meals to children, seniors, homeless and foster youth, and low-income families in need.
World Central Kitchen’s Editorial Director, Sam Chapple-Sokol, recalled the first few months of the pandemic and getting the partnership up and running. “It's been really incredible to see [the progress]. We launched Restaurants for the People a month and a half before we named it. . . We started working with three restaurants: Reem’s, Nyum Bai, and Los Cilantros. . . And those three restaurants were very grateful to have the opportunity.” The partnership worked by engaging local Oakland restaurants, where they were paid $10 per meal. Then, these initial three restaurants served up to 1,500 meals per week to members of the Oakland community. Over the course of the eight months, our efforts ramped up dramatically.
Amanda Masula, World Central Kitchen’s Oakland Operations Lead, chimed in, “Our day to day operations have definitely evolved. We were on this really quick incline of onboarding new community partners. We would make contact, assess their needs–the days of the week they wanted to provide meals for their residents or their community, the amount of meals they needed, and at the time they needed it delivered.”
When reflecting on the hours of coordination between both teams to develop this program truly from the ground up, the why behind it goes back to our mission statement–Eat. Learn. Play. is committed to fighting to end childhood hunger, ensuring students have access to a quality education, and providing safe places for all children to play and be active. We went into this work with the full intention of ensuring the 18,000 kids who depended on the school meal program would not go hungry. With our new partnership with World Central Kitchen, we moved quickly to make sure Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) had the adequate resources they needed to put in place their meal distribution effort.
In the first week of school closures, OUSD served 90,000 meals. “During the weekly food distributions at various OUSD sites, we observed entire families, many of whom had been laid off due to the shelter-in-place orders, were showing up to pick up food,” Jose Corona, Eat. Learn. Play. VP of Programs and Partnerships observed. Nicole Vildosola, World Central Kitchen’s Restaurants Operations Lead added, “[The number of meals delivered per day] varies. Our busiest days were Thursdays because OUSD [sites] is a big distribution. We were delivering around 19,000 to 23,000 meals on average every Thursday.”
Our partnership with World Central Kitchen was one of the largest activations of the nationwide Restaurants for the People program and scaled in Oakland in unimaginable ways. At the height of the initiative, we grew to engage more than 130 Oakland restaurants, serving 95,000 meals per week in just eight months, in order to serve well over 2 million meals. This meant generating $20 million back into the local economy and helping to rehire 900 restaurant workers.
Alongside World Central Kitchen, we have worked tirelessly to identify, re-open, and engage Oakland restaurants in need of support that fit our framework: small, independent, and community-focused. The collaboration demonstrated an innovative solution as a critical resource for those facing hunger in Oakland. We are hopeful this process helped develop a blueprint for how communities can respond to help feed one another in difficult times. As we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic, we met the needs of the community by purchasing meals directly from the imperiled restaurant industry and delivering them to those who need assistance.
The national restaurant industry has experienced up to 90% decreases in business revenue due to COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing. Thus, our partnership with World Central Kitchen enabled Oakland restaurants to stay in business to help during this crisis. Most importantly, this partnership established relationships between restaurants and community members. Not only did our onboarding process include sharing our nutritional guidelines and health and safety expectations, we ensured to account for cultural sensitivities for each population in need. Masula emphasized, “We were really sensitive to pairing an appropriate cuisine to the demographic, culturally, so that played a big factor in partnering the restaurant with the community.”
Working with all of our community partners also ensured we reached families most in need and often overlooked by many efforts, but like Restaurants for the People, we have built trust within our community. Chapple-Sokol recalled, “As the months had gone on, everybody has grown together—the city, the recipient communities, and our team . . . in order to really build a symbiotic relationship that has really allowed everybody to thrive. . . Just witnessing this [collective] relationship grow in a much bigger, macro sense has just been awesome.”
Anna Shova, World Central Kitchen’s Restaurants Operations Lead, chimed in, “It’s provided hope and opportunities to survive. It’s like we’re feeding the restaurants to make sure they can feed the community. As the numbers were starting to grow, I could see the restaurants start building better relationships with the community.” She continued, “Restaurant culture has changed. Popular Michelin star restaurants have now asked ‘What else can I do for the community?’ Now, it’s less about being rewarded and more about being closer to the community. People are opening up their eyes.”
Some of the most notable restaurants that participated in our program were Kingston 11, El Huarache Azteca, Monster Pho, Reem’s, Lena’s Soul Food Kitchen, Red Door Catering, Nyum Bai, Los Cilantros, Luka’s Taproom, Copper Spoon, Mama Lamees, Chop Bar, Delicious Curry House, and among many others.